Stevie Smith

By: Brian Berger
September 20, 2010

“She always suggested some kind of mildly discommoded bird, perhaps a jackdaw with a touch of weltanschauungangst,” wrote Jonathan Williams of friend and fellow poet STEVIE SMITH (Florence Smith, 1902-71). Born in Hull and raised in Palmers Green (London), where she’d live nearly the rest of her life with her Aunt Madge, she got her nickname from English jockey Steve Donoghue, whom she resembled when riding. She attended secretarial school; her experience as an office worker inspired her first work, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936). Two more strange, daring novels would follow, but it was her poetry — often accompanied by her own doodles — from A Good Time Was Had By All (1937) forward that made her reputation. Kenneth Cox said of Smith: “Ridiculous and terrifying, aunt and prophetess, her voice between giggle and scream, cracking the provincial vicarage, declaring again and again: there is no formula for poetry, no school, no authority, nothing but the spirit that moves and the wit and the nerve to give it utterance.” A desultory 1953 suicide attempt led to Stevie’s early retirement from the office; this was followed by the brilliant Not Waving But Drowning (1957). Five years later after her death (brain tumor), Glenda Jackson played her in the astonishing bio-pic Stevie.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jay Ward and Upton Sinclair.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled generation (1894-1903).

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